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Puerto Rico (Before the Storm): What Happened to the Island That I Love?

Avatar Robert Lopez-Irizarry
Member since July 20, 2017
  • 2 Posts
  • Age 18

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The following is an article I wrote August 14, 2017, as I looked over a bright sunny Boston day. Looking back, I had no idea Puerto Rico would ever be the center of a national debate. At the time I could not fathom the possibility of such a disaster as the one that has destroyed the island. Yet as recovery and relief efforts continue, it is important to remember what the island was before. However, more importantly, how the new challenges Puerto Rico faces can shape its history forever.

As a child, I remember the excitement of flying to Puerto Rico. Before landing at Luis Munoz Marin Airport, I would take in the beautiful views from the clear, crisp waters to the view of El Moro. A native of Miami, I never really felt at one with the city. I have always felt distinctly Puerto Rican. My mother was born and raised there. This is where my parents met, this is where family is. For me, Puerto Rico is an ethereal place, embodying the essence and warmth of home. Every time I drove down PR-114(en route to visit family), the fields, the smell, the fresh hot Caribbean air, all of it is home. However, my beloved home is currently in ruins. Gripped by a political crisis that has been brewing for years, Puerto Rico is at a crossroads.The decisions made in the present will shape my nation's future forever.

It has been a very long and complicated road for La Isla del Encanto. The issue of "status" is the center of politics on the island. This is in reference to the political status of the island, due to its current unique classification as a Commonwealth, there has been much outcry from both the Pro-Independence and Pro-Statehood side. In fact, major political parties on the island are organized around these platforms. There are three major parties: the center-right, pro-Statehood New Progressive Party(PNP), the center-left, Pro-Status quo, Popular Democratic Party(PPD), and the Far-left Pro-Independence Puerto Rico Independence Party(PIP). These are the points from where the political issues for the island stem. There are some political elites of the country that are marked by scandals of corruption and embezzlement. Yet for some reason, they still get elected and perpetuate political patronage, where public work projects, contracts for friends, are a common occurrence. The situation is so dire, that the possibility of any change feels impossible. The ability to have a Bernie Sanders like figure, in the sense that a new candidate brings a change to the party dynamic and platform seems impossible.

The political situation may seem terrible but, saying the same thing about the economic situation would be an understatement. According to the US Census, 45.4% of the island lives under the federal poverty level, which is almost double that of the poorest state (Mississippi 24%). It is clear almost half of the island is living in poverty, coupled with an average unemployment rate for the last 6 months of 11.3%. Industry in Puerto Rico is faltering, not to mention the largest employer is, in fact, the government, employing over 220,100. These are not at all indications of an economy that is healthy, it is of one riddled with stagnation. I believe this is a result of Puerto Rico’s unique status, where they are U.S. Citizens but do not enjoy many benefits that come with it. Some have also argued that this stagnation was partly caused by the repeal of Sec. 936, a law which gave tax breaks to U.S. companies looking to invest in the island. It was introduced in 1976 and brought great investment from the U.S. including a booming pharmaceutical industry. Its repeal in the early ‘90s has been pointed to as a turning point in economic growth in the island.

The Puerto Rican Government, run by the political parties previously described, has also amounted a huge debt. Before the Fiscal Oversight Board took over, the Puerto Rican debt was numbered at $74 Billion in debt and $53 Billion in unpaid pensions. I belive this stems from the 1917 Jones Act guaranteeing that all Bonds from the island are tax exempt. It also established that interests on these bonds cannot be taxed, meaning that buying Puerto Rican debt is extremely attractive. For American investors it was a “win-win situation”, tax-exempt Bonds on debt for a state or territory which previously had never before gone bankrupt. However, Puerto Rico has now filed for a bankrupt status under the PROMESA legislation. Investors are looking to be paid back on all that they invested. Under this PROMESA law, a Fiscal Oversight Board was established. This board is tasked with the implementation of austerity measures, restructuring debt, and making sure Puerto Rico has a plan to pay off its debt. However, there are people on the island who view it as another example of the U.S. overexerting its control on the island. In the end, the largest affected are the people of Puerto Rico, my people.

The island's political climate has recently reached a boiling point, where students from the UPR(University of Puerto Rico) voted to go on strike. This is after the Fiscal Oversight Board announced it was going to cut almost half of the universities funds. The outraged students went on strike to rebel against a Fiscal Oversight Board and a call for a radical change in the party dominated political system. I believe this strike brought very little change and prevented students from going to class for almost two months, however, it did highlight the dismay of the Fiscal Oversight Board. Young people on the island are inspired, they want to change and they are ready to bring political reform.

The island I love so much I believe is on the verge of a new chapter in its history. Despite so many of the problems which it faces, now is the time for the youth to organize. Free Speech, the democratic process, and political savviness are what can bring meaningful, peaceful change, and reform. To those young people in Puerto Rico, I call you all to use social media, organize, and unite under peaceful political goals. This can come in the form of pushing forward legislation. Either working inside a party and changing it from within, or making an entirely new one, and at the local level, to make a grassroots revolution. That is what our beloved Borinquen needs, a grassroots movement that connects with the people and makes sure those in power are held accountable and create a climate where a new alternative to the parties can flourish. Puerto Rico, I am here with you and I sympathize with you, but you need change. Jovenes(Young people), you must be that change!

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